A jury in California returned a $73 million verdict last month against Ford Motor Co. Interestingly, the Plaintiffs’ lawyers turned down a settlement offer from Ford in the middle of jury deliberations. That was obviously a good decision. I understand Ford’s lawyers called Roger Dreyer, one of the Plaintiff’s attorneys, at 5:30 a.m. in an attempt to settle the case. Roger told Ford that the time to settle was “long past.” The case, he said, demanded public accountability, for what he characterized as a major corporation’s “despicable” conduct in failing to notify consumers its vehicles were equipped with defective tires subject to a recall. The jury’s message established a resounding standard on holding giant corporations such as Ford accountable. The auto giant – at the last minute – wanted to settle and keep it confidential. Had the offer been accepted, the public would never have known what the jury had learned about Ford’s conduct.
The jury found Ford at fault for the April 9, 2004, crash that killed two members of the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church and injured two more. On the way home from a statewide musical tour, the church caravan had just pulled onto an interstate highway and was on the final stretch on its return home to the Sacramento area.
The vehicle involved in the case was an E-350 Econoline van. Witnesses at trial testified that the 15-passenger van began to shake, the result of a tread separation on the same type of tire that Goodyear, two years earlier, had notified Ford was defective. The driver William Brownell, pulled the van into the center median. But when he tried to turn back to the right, the vehicle spun sideways and rolled over four times, killing him and his front seat passenger.
Plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit against Ford that the company never told its dealers about Goodyear’s 2002 notification that the tire was the subject of a replacement program. Ford sat on the information, because at the time the company was coming off the $2 billion Firestone/Explorer recall. The company didn’t want any more bad publicity about defective tires and vehicles that were prone to rollovers.
The jury awarded $23 million compensatory damages and $50 million punitive damages against Ford. The jury found that the company acted out of “malice or oppression” in not passing along the information about the bad tire. The foreman of the jury, a project manager for Cisco, had this to say:
For a company that is that large and a company that has gone through several of those experiences in the past, for them to not make the choice to make as many people aware as possible – just to increase the odds that more people would get those tires off their vehicles – that, to me, that’s why I did the fist at the end.
The jury also found the van’s design as having failed “to perform as safely … as expected.”
The passenger’s wife and two sons were awarded $17.5 million by the jury. The panel held Ford responsible for 59% of the fault and Goodyear 41%. Goodyear, which already has settled with the Plaintiffs, was not a Defendant. Brownell’s family had previously settled their lawsuits. Plaintiff Marlene Shirley, another passenger who sustained severe abdominal injuries, was awarded a separate $5.2 million. She had her seat belt loosely fastened while she slept on a middle seat. Ford’s lawyers said the loosely fastened belt was the reason for her injuries. The jury found Ms. Shirley 1% responsible, Ford 58.5% and Goodyear 40.5. A third Plaintiff, Alexander Bessonov, who suffered lacerations, was awarded $292,000. Roger A. Dreyer was the lead lawyer in this case. He is with Dreyer, Babich, Buccola and Wood, in Sacramento, Calif. He did a very good job in this case.
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